13th Street blues
Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 12:51 a.m.
Ask someone in Gainesville for directions to the Sunshine Plaza, and chances are all you'll get is a quizzical look.
Ask them for directions to Wal-Mart, and you'll probably get a ready answer.
"Wal-Mart is an identifier, a location to help people find us," said Jerry Tidwell, owner of the Mail Boxes Etc. franchise in the Wal-Mart Plaza on NW 13th Street, who said few people remember the strip mall was formerly known as the Sunshine Plaza.
Big box stores like Wal-Mart have long been a lifeblood for their smaller neighbors, drawing hordes of shoppers who venture into more specialized shops after a trip down the aisles of a larger store.
On Tuesday, retailers along NW 13th Street got a double whammy: Kmart announced it will close its NW 13th Street store, and Wal-Mart officials said they may close their store, across the street from Kmart, and replace it with a supercenter two miles north.
Store owners and other businesspeople have mixed reactions about whether the area will be able to withstand the blow of two retail giants closing their doors.
"I think with the traffic that goes through that corridor and the neighborhoods that are served by that business district, it would surprise me if they didn't find new tenants for those stores relatively quickly," said Brent Christensen, director of the Council for Economic Outreach, adding that small stores in the area could be successful without a large retailer nearby.
The departure of a big box store initially leaves some people without jobs and some residents without quick access to a shopping center.
It also leaves empty space that can mean big opportunities for other retailers to get space at a lower rate than they might normally get, he said.
University of Florida business geographer Grant Thrall said closing Kmart and possibly Wal-Mart could have a "quite profound" impact on nearby businesses if the owners of the Wal-Mart Plaza and Gainesville Mall, where Kmart is located, don't find similar tenants quickly. But he expects the spaces to be occupied again.
"The whole neighborhood may be in for a downslide retail-wise for a while, but it will come back," he said.
Part of a pattern
Thrall said the ebb and flow of businesses on NW 13th Street are part of a pattern that has been repeated across the country. As in other cities, Gainesville's major retailers were located downtown before World War II.
In the post-war boom, stores moved to malls on the city's periphery - in the 1950s and 1960s, the area on NW 13th Street, a major artery into the city.
After Interstate 75 was built in the 1970s, major retailers moved again to capture the flow of traffic that the interstate offered to the west.
Thrall said older strip malls don't have to sit empty. Often, they're used for things such as offices, schools or government facilities instead of stores.
Or they could be razed and rebuilt like the site of the former Royal Park shopping center on Newberry Road. A popular movie theater was rebuilt on the property.
For the smaller retailers along NW 13th Street, Thrall said losing Kmart and possibly Wal-Mart will be the equivalent of an anchor store closing in a mall.
"People won't come from Cedar Key to go to Books-a-Million," he said. "Their number of customers will decline significantly."
The owner of the Gainesville Mall and leasing agent of Wometco Plaza, at the intersection of NW 13th Street and NW 23rd Avenue and home of a former Pic 'N' Save grocery store, said a number of retailers have expressed interest in moving to both sites.
Betsy Whitaker, president of Asset Management Inc., said stores such as beauty salons, insurance companies and small eateries have called about moving into Wometco after renovations are completed.
Reconstruction of the plaza could begin as early as late spring. The empty Pic 'N' Save may be converted into eight to 12 smaller stores - spaces Whitaker said small retailers have been craving.
If Wal-Mart chooses to move, its site could be in high demand.
"If they (Wal-Mart) do close, there's a great opportunity for another off-price store or discount store," she said. "They have done an unbelievable business there."
The Kmart site could be a hot property as well. Whitaker said several retailers were interested in moving into the Kmart space in early 2002, when the company announced a first round of store closings and some suspected the NW 13th Street store might be closed.
Whitaker rattled off a list of reasons a business might want to move to NW 13th Street: a stable population, lots of traffic and shopping centers that are easily accessible.
"The people that live within that mile-and-a-half radius would prefer shopping here if we have what they're looking for," she said. "There's so much traffic and congestion that they have to fight to get to the (Oaks) mall and Butler Plaza."
Fifty-one percent of houses within a three-mile radius were built between 1960 and 1979, according to a demographic analysis provided by Whitaker.
The fact that there's no room for new housing may deter stores such as Target or Publix from moving there, said Tiff Murphy, co-owner of Equilease Inc., a Gainesville company that helps revitalize unused strip malls. The most successful chains tend to move into new markets where people have money to spend, he said.
"If you don't have a growing population around your store, your store sales are going to be stagnant. They may be OK, but they're not going to grow," he said.
Employees at stores around Kmart and Wal-Mart said they were guardedly optimistic about the future of NW 13th Street.
Angi McLean, co-manager at Goody's, located next door to Kmart, said she wasn't sure if the closing of Kmart would increase or decrease sales at Goody's.
"Instead of going next door to buy clothes, they could come over here to buy clothes," she said.
On the other hand, shoppers who stopped first at Kmart to buy things such as Tupperware or soap and then ventured next door might not make a trip to the shopping mall just to shop at Goody's.
"It would depend on who leases the space or occupies it following their departure. That will be the important factor," said Tidwell, the owner of the Mail Boxes Etc. "If it sits empty, that would not be good for the traffic flow. It would ease parking congestion, but that's not exactly what retail merchants are trying to strive for."
Ashley Rowland can be reached at 374-5095 or rowlana@ gvillesun.com.
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